Part 4: How do government and industry deal with the cost of space access? The impact of today’s space launch economies

Government and commercial mission designers share a common challenge: the constraints imposed by launch costs.

Although we are 50 years into the space age, the means of accessing space remain limited, and the high cost of launch drives the economics of all space enterprise. For commercial communications satellites, the cost of launch and insurance can be more than half of the entire cost of the satellite mission.

Legacy expendable launch vehicles provide space access for non-NASA government and commercial users. The technical difficulty of reliable space access is a significant barrier to new space launch entrants, as the recent experience and impressive resolve of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has shown. For heavy-lift missions headed to geosynchronous orbit an enormous premium is, of course, placed on launch reliability. Reliability is a function of flight heritage, and the geosynchronous launch systems with heritage and reliability are very few: Ariane, Atlas, Delta, Proton, Sea Launch (which uses rocket engines with long flight heritage) and Soyuz. And scarcity, of course, drives demand and cost.

The expense of access to geosynchronous orbit has resulted in the central fact of life for geosynchronous space operations today: both commercial and military geosynchronous satellites are launched with the same hardware configuration they will have at the end of their operating life, with no possibility of servicing or hardware upgrade.

Unlike low Earth orbiting missions, such as the Hubble Space Telescope or the international space station, the hardware and fuel you launch with is the hardware and fuel you live with for the entire mission of a geosynchronous satellite. As a consequence, space planners emphasize high reliability components and launch with fuel sufficient to support the entire mission life.

Hence the conundrum of all geosynchronous space operators: the vast majority of the costs of each space mission must be borne before the mission is launched. Most of the total life-cycle cost of a geosynchronous satellite is expended by the time the satellite arrives on orbit. The recurring cost of space operations – telemetry, tracking and control – is a fraction of the nonrecurring funds expended on spacecraft design, construction, integration, launch and launch insurance.

If, in contrast, the upfront cost of acquiring an F-22 included the cost of the fuel the F-22 will consume from now until 2028, plus the cost of maintenance, pilot training or technology upgrades over its life, each aircraft would have a price tag of more than $1 billion.

For both government and commercial space planners, the timing of capital deployment for geosynchronous missions has a pivotal effect on mission design. For government space planners, the enormous mission cost, and resulting long mission expectation, for geosynchronous satellites has created a propensity to layer requirements onto requirements for each mission.

If mission lifetime is at least a decade post-launch, then the space planner must envision requirements well beyond the spacecraft build cycle and forecast the communications or sensing requirements of the user community a generation from now.

It is a circular effect: the high cost of space access sets a high bar for the functionality of mission spacecraft, and the high functionality expectations add to the cost of the mission spacecraft themselves. The complex requirements for the mission spacecraft, of course, drive technical complexity; technical complexity adds schedule risk, and schedule risk increases cost.

Increased cost due to growing schedule risk draws congressional attention, and congressional attention can place stress on program budgets, which in turn can impact schedule or technical capability.

For commercial communication satellite operators, the impact of spending the vast majority of project capital upfront drives the structure of the business. For example, since a medium-class geosynchronous spacecraft may cost $130 million in today’s market, and launch plus insurance are an additional $140 million or more, then a single satellite project commitment is $300 million, including a conservative expectation for the cost of capital, before the satellite’s first day on orbit. Each spacecraft must reliably function for many years in order to return its investment, and technical risk is therefore anathema to commercial satellite operators.

In today’s market, each geosynchronous satellite is expected to have a minimum orbital maneuvering life of 15 years; a satellite asset is operated until it can no longer reliably function – usually 17-20 years (at the very limit) in today’s market.

Current space economies impact government and commercial space operators equally by discouraging risk-taking in new technologies. The expectations of long mission life mean that triple component redundancy, a very conservative approach to component sourcing and a rigorous insistence on component flight heritage are commonplace. In addition to the obvious economic impact, an industrial aversion to risk has stunted the technical growth of the geosynchronous space industrial base.

The shared impact of current space economics also may create shared opportunities for government and industry. Despite the high cost, global geosynchronous satellite operators must constantly launch satellites to replace aging satellite assets. The new satellites are usually designed and launched as close to the “end of maneuvering life” for existing satellites as possible. The replacement satellites are typically built and launched within two to three years of order.

Government space operators usually take 10 years to design, test and launch new satellite systems. Commercial operators are considering the “hosting” of new technology demonstrators aboard their geosynchronous spacecraft to reduce the risk of new technologies for government spacecraft, and to provide rapid on-orbit testing for systems, which may later be included in dedicated government systems. Commercial operators get additional revenue early in a satellite’s mission for the hosted payload, provided that the hosted payloads have a limited impact on spacecraft life and resources for its core commercial mission.

More importantly, these technology demonstrators may help the industry, and government, break through the swamp of technology stasis currently affecting geosynchronous space operations. By gradually testing and integrating new technologies, largely for the benefit of the government, industry also may find itself with a base of new space-qualified next-generation systems on which to design new satellites. It is a win-win, but can only be achieved by cooperation between government and commercial space leaders. A shared challenge, the high cost of space access, is also a shared opportunity for government and commercial space operators.

Don Brown is vice president for hosted payloads at Intelsat General Corp. U.S. Air Force Maj. Michael Moyles is researching commercial/military communications satellite hybrids at the

. This is the fourth in a five-part series. Readers are encouraged to join the debate at